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DPChallenge Forums >> Tips, Tricks, and Q&A >> Any tips for night photography?
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01/17/2012 03:59:29 AM · #1
I went out last night to have a go at taking a photo in the dark but I had real problems doing so and did not succeed. I have the camera set on automatic focus and it was on a tripod. I tried all the various modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority and one of the Auto modes for night photos but the camera didn't seem to be able to focus and therefore took no photos. It was pretty dark but I could see what I wanted to photograph (which was basically a rural landscape). I am guessing the problem was the camera was unable to see anything and therefore could do with some advice on what settings are recommended for night time photography. Perhaps I need a super bright torch or car head lights to illuminate the scene? The moon wasn't that bright last night so that didn't help.

Thanks in advance.
01/17/2012 04:13:52 AM · #2
You must always shoot in M mode for this type of photography. Other settings just won't allow the exposure time needed to capture your image. M mode on bulb setting is what I always use. Unless its dusk then you can sometimes get away with the AV mode and let it choose your exposure time. For completely dark situations with no point of light to focus on it gets complicated for focus. You can only use auto focus if there is a bit of town lights to focus on. If there is focus on those lights then switch to manual focus and don't touch anything. If there are no town lights you can try two things. #1 arrive early get your focus then switch to manual mode and don't touch anything until you are ready to shoot. #2 if everything in your shot is 30 feet or farther away you can focus to infinity in manual mode.

Settings I usually use once everything else is in place are the following. 200-400 ISO aperture of around 7-9 then you must open your shutter for at least 3-15 min depending on how much light is available and what your aperture and ISO is set at. You can set your ISO higher than what I recommended or your aperture higher than I recommend your shutter speed will be a lot less time but you will end up with a noisy photo with not enough DOF.

Really it's all trial and error. Kind of frustrating when you are standing there for five minutes in the cold only to find out you didn't leave the shutter open long enough or too long. But once you try it out a few times in your area you will figure out the best general settings and it won't be such a guessing game.
01/17/2012 04:18:59 AM · #3
Manual mode and manual focus with a f-stop of around 22 to 25. With the 40D the noise level is low so you can shoot at a higher ISO. A remote shutter is a good idea to have to avoid camera shake. By having your camera at such a small aperture you will have a deeper DOF so the camera can focus over a longer range.

Hope this helps.

01/17/2012 04:20:04 AM · #4
Thank you kindly sjhuls for the very useful reply - that sure explains why I was not having any joy. There are not really any lights to focus on so focussing to infinity sounds like the way to go - now where is that camera manual. Gosh, I think I would have froze if I had waited 15 minutes for a photo last night. I will be sure to wrap up warm tonight and perhaps take a wee hip flask of whisky for company:)

Many thanks for the swift and detailed reply.
01/17/2012 04:21:29 AM · #5
Hey thanks SDW. I do have a remote shutter so it may be time to see if Ebay's offering actually works though I guess the 10 second timer would also work?
01/17/2012 04:25:49 AM · #6
Originally posted by paulsteven:

Hey thanks SDW. I do have a remote shutter so it may be time to see if Ebay's offering actually works though I guess the 10 second timer would also work?


If its an ir remote it won't work with the 40D unfortunately.
01/17/2012 04:35:11 AM · #7
Originally posted by paulsteven:

Hey thanks SDW. I do have a remote shutter so it may be time to see if Ebay's offering actually works though I guess the 10 second timer would also work?


Yes, the ten second timer will also work. In addition to that, some cameras have a setting that delays exposure until one second after the shutter opens, to negate vibrations from raising the mirror. In my Nikon D90, it's setting d10 "exposure delay mode". Your 40D may have something similar.
01/17/2012 05:23:20 AM · #8
Originally posted by JamesA:

Originally posted by paulsteven:

Hey thanks SDW. I do have a remote shutter so it may be time to see if Ebay's offering actually works though I guess the 10 second timer would also work?


If its an ir remote it won't work with the 40D unfortunately.


I think it uses radio waves as there is a switch to try different channels. I will have to give it a test before going out on the field in the dark and cold.
01/17/2012 05:45:17 AM · #9
Originally posted by paulsteven:

Originally posted by JamesA:

Originally posted by paulsteven:

Hey thanks SDW. I do have a remote shutter so it may be time to see if Ebay's offering actually works though I guess the 10 second timer would also work?


If its an ir remote it won't work with the 40D unfortunately.


I think it uses radio waves as there is a switch to try different channels. I will have to give it a test before going out on the field in the dark and cold.


Tht's probably a good idea if you are going to shoot in bulb mode and well over the max exposure time in manual mode.
In my camera, annoyingly, the only way of using bulb mode is with a cable release. IR and 3/10 sec timer will open the shutter and close it immediately, and keeping the shutter pressed with a finger for 5 minutes is definetely not a great option (out of desperation I did that too :)

I think I read that some people will use a laser light to find focus at night.
Otherwise, if your lens have focus distance markings, you could use a DOF calculator to figure out how to set it. There are many free for android and other smart phones, and tables to print out if you prefer.

It's always a good idea to bring a spare torch, if you have one. Nothing as annoying as tryigb to set a camera in complete darkness knowing that any mystake means another 5 minutes exposure :)

Have fun!
01/17/2012 05:59:59 AM · #10
You've already received some very good advice. The only thing I would add is... one should be aware of your DOF plane (The zone, or range of distances, within a scene that will record as sharp). You need to decide how much of your foreground is to be in focus and whether or not your aperture setting will have distant (to infinity) subjects in focus. While it can work to just set your focus ring gauge to infinity, that may not be as good a choice as setting your focus to the hyperfocal distance. Also, in low light situations, you do want to open up that aperture quite a lot... and still achieve your desired DOF plane. I have the iPhone version of //www.dofmaster.com/dofjs.html. One can have confidence in one's exposure, if one uses this tool. And, by opening up the aperture, you can shorten your shutter speed to minimize electronic noise. For example, I used f/6.3 and 292 seconds in the moonlight of a 0.82 waning gibbous moon. So, I focused on an object at the hyperfocal distance of 17 feet and was confident that my scene would be in focus from 8 feet to infinity. And, it was.

Also, a headlamp is an important part of my gear. It allows hands free camera adjustments. It happened to be very windy when I captured my image. I did hang my camera backpack to a hook on the center pole of the tripod to stabilize the camera in the gusty winds.

Message edited by author 2012-01-17 06:17:42.
01/17/2012 06:16:29 AM · #11
if you are planning on taking a long exposures, say a few minutes or more, to use the long exposure noise reduction if your camera has one. When the sensor collects light for so long it heats up and that creates noise. the camera will take a second "black" shot that is equally as long as your exposure and subtract out the noise.

now if you take a 15 exposure the camera will take a 15 black exposure right after, so keep that in mind.

also note that if its really cold out you may be able to get away with it.
01/17/2012 06:22:09 AM · #12
Originally posted by mike_311:

if you are planning on taking a long exposures, say a few minutes or more, to use the long exposure noise reduction if your camera has one. When the sensor collects light for so long it heats up and that creates noise. the camera will take a second "black" shot that is equally as long as your exposure and subtract out the noise.

now if you take a 15 exposure the camera will take a 15 black exposure right after, so keep that in mind.

also note that if its really cold out you may be able to get away with it.

True enough! However, that "long exposure noise reduction" is a tradeoff with image sharpness. On my camera, I do get a few hot pixels when I shoot long exposures. But, I prefer to repair those hot pixels manually, as that is allowed under the relevant ruleset.
01/17/2012 06:54:02 AM · #13
The noise reduction is a right pain waiting for it hehe, I've been out three nights this week in the cold -5 centigrade up in the peaks shooting and done pretty much all has been said, I use a timer release to time shots on countdown, bag strapped to tripod, head torch, flask, chocolate and next time I'm taking a small foldable chair and my headphones as it gets boring waiting on 10 minute exposures.

01/17/2012 06:56:13 AM · #14
Originally posted by hahn23:

However, that "long exposure noise reduction" is a tradeoff with image sharpness. On my camera, I do get a few hot pixels when I shoot long exposures. But, I prefer to repair those hot pixels manually, as that is allowed under the relevant ruleset.


never noticed that, however i was only using a kin lens too, I'll have to keep that in mind when i take out my new toy.
01/17/2012 07:03:42 AM · #15
Originally posted by SDW:

Manual mode and manual focus with a f-stop of around 22 to 25. With the 40D the noise level is low so you can shoot at a higher ISO. A remote shutter is a good idea to have to avoid camera shake. By having your camera at such a small aperture you will have a deeper DOF so the camera can focus over a longer range.

Hope this helps.


I would not personally recommend shooting at F22-25 for much of any lens in any situation. Many lenses suffer from extreme dropoffs in image performance at this range as a result of diffraction. It will also make an already long exposure somewhere near an hour or more unless you really pump your ISO. ETA: Case in point- I did some night shots the other night. My exposure was 15 sec @ 1.4 @ ISO 3200. To shoot at F22, my exposure would have been 64 minutes @ ISO 3200.
The longer an exposure, the hotter the sensor gets. Some sensors have worse problems with this than others. It often manifests itself as weird purple coloring and is known as amp glow. Your noise also progressively increases.

Another solution for focusing is to bring a small high powered flashlight to shine on something. Granted, this only works for some circumstances, but you should have one with you regardless. Lastly, I would not recommend relying upon your depth of field focus scale on the lens unless you're sure where it focuses already. Many will allow you to move the ring beyond infinity, making your image out of focus, and many will be at infinity focus before or after the actual marking.

ETA2: Here are some useful links:
DPC night tutorial
thread
thread
thread
thread
thread

Message edited by author 2012-01-17 07:19:00.
01/17/2012 09:10:51 AM · #16
Originally posted by spiritualspatula:

...
Another solution for focusing is to bring a small high powered flashlight to shine on something. Granted, this only works for some circumstances, but you should have one with you regardless. Lastly, I would not recommend relying upon your depth of field focus scale on the lens unless you're sure where it focuses already. Many will allow you to move the ring beyond infinity, making your image out of focus, and many will be at infinity focus before or after the actual marking.
....

Exactly correct. I've made that mistake of assuming that moving the focus ring all the way to the infinity setting will have stars and planets in sharp focus. I ended up with blurred stars and moon, which was a big disappointment. Infinity sharpness can be found in that immediate area, but rarely in the full rotation of the ring.
01/17/2012 10:04:28 AM · #17
I use flash infra red to focus then switch it off.
01/17/2012 12:02:31 PM · #18
Originally posted by hahn23:

Originally posted by spiritualspatula:

...
Another solution for focusing is to bring a small high powered flashlight to shine on something. Granted, this only works for some circumstances, but you should have one with you regardless. Lastly, I would not recommend relying upon your depth of field focus scale on the lens unless you're sure where it focuses already. Many will allow you to move the ring beyond infinity, making your image out of focus, and many will be at infinity focus before or after the actual marking.
....

Exactly correct. I've made that mistake of assuming that moving the focus ring all the way to the infinity setting will have stars and planets in sharp focus. I ended up with blurred stars and moon, which was a big disappointment. Infinity sharpness can be found in that immediate area, but rarely in the full rotation of the ring.


Yeah, it only takes a few hours spent capturing what you thought would be the perfect startrails/night photo that turns out to be worthless to learn this. Not that I've EVER done this MYSELF....
' . substr('//www.dpchallenge.com/images/user_icon/21.gif', strrpos('//www.dpchallenge.com/images/user_icon/21.gif', '/') + 1) . ' alexlky's comment about using your flash for infrared focus is also a good one, but, like the flashlight, doesn't work well for applications that are particularly vast. In general. finding focus can be hard in the dark. Know your gear, firstly. Second, what you should do before you try any long exposure is determine exactly what exposure you want by cranking your ISO and shooting wide open to get your shortest shutter duration. Once this is done, you can evaluate your focus and get it spot on. Lastly, use your knowledge of reciprocal exposure to determine the length of shutter for a more technically sound photo (read that as "one which is not overwhelmingly composed of huge grains of noise"). It also pays to invest in a quality thermos. I usually swing by a local coffee shop that's open 24/7 and get some fresh espresso. If you have a portable stove, that works great too, but be aware that you very may well get the light from the stove leaking into the shot if you aren't careful.
01/17/2012 12:06:54 PM · #19
Thanks for all the great replies and the great tutorial link. This night photography seems quite tricky by the sounds of things so I am not holding out much hope of getting anything worthy of a challenge entry tonight but will be fun having a go.
01/17/2012 12:38:30 PM · #20
I love night photography, there's nothing like sitting outside in the dark, enjoying the stillness of the night. ♥

My flashlight is one of the most important tools since I use it often to paint light on subjects or key aspects of the scene I'm shooting. A remote shutter would be the second most important tool, unless you don't mind having your finger on the button for hours while shooting on 'bulb' for those extra long exposures. A flash can be very useful too, shooting it off in and around old structures can make for some really interesting shots.

In my bag: Camera, wide angle lens, tripod, remote Shutter, extra batteries, flashlight, gloves, warm socks and a sandwich. ;)
01/17/2012 12:39:35 PM · #21
One trick I learned early is to take out your gear during the daytime and if you already know what kind of shot you want, frame it up and shoot a few to ensure your focus is spot on etc. Then switch your lens to Manual as opposed to Autofocus. Then unless you're going to start shooting, you can bring your camera inside and not touch or mess with any of your focus settings. I usually do night photography on my own property, and I live out in the country, so I don't mind leaving the tripod out by itself (I make sure it's not easily visible from any roads near me).

Then when it's dark enough, I go outside, mount up the camera, turn on mirror lockup (as I think it's called in Canon)and get my exposure, set the thingy to bulb, mount up the remote, start the exposure...then go inside and hang out for a few minutes! Then when I think it's been long enough I kill the exposure and go see what I got, and adjust from there.

Something else to watch for: light sources. Orange sodium lightwash from the nearby biggish town, the corner's own big ugly fluourescent light, any ambient lightspill from my own windows...yeah, they can really mess your exposure and leave you with some weird-ass colours. The darker the place you can shoot from, the better.

Hope all this helps, and good luck!

Even if you don't get anything usable this time around, it'll be great practice.
01/17/2012 01:02:09 PM · #22
Originally posted by snaffles:

One trick I learned early is to take out your gear during the daytime and if you already know what kind of shot you want, frame it up and shoot a few to ensure your focus is spot on etc. Then switch your lens to Manual as opposed to Autofocus. Then unless you're going to start shooting, you can bring your camera inside and not touch or mess with any of your focus settings. I usually do night photography on my own property, and I live out in the country, so I don't mind leaving the tripod out by itself (I make sure it's not easily visible from any roads near me).

Then when it's dark enough, I go outside, mount up the camera, turn on mirror lockup (as I think it's called in Canon)and get my exposure, set the thingy to bulb, mount up the remote, start the exposure...then go inside and hang out for a few minutes! Then when I think it's been long enough I kill the exposure and go see what I got, and adjust from there.

Something else to watch for: light sources. Orange sodium lightwash from the nearby biggish town, the corner's own big ugly fluourescent light, any ambient lightspill from my own windows...yeah, they can really mess your exposure and leave you with some weird-ass colours. The darker the place you can shoot from, the better.

Hope all this helps, and good luck!

Even if you don't get anything usable this time around, it'll be great practice.


FWIW, Mirror lockup is only really worthwhile for intermediate shutter durations, somewhere around 1/2 to 1/30 of a second. Any slower and the duration isn't effected, same is true of any longer. Mirror lock-up is also more critical the larger your mirror. A full frame behaves very differently than an APS-C, and a medium format even more so.
ETA: This can also be mitigated by a better tripod/support system, to a large extent.

Message edited by author 2012-01-17 13:07:02.
01/17/2012 04:40:44 PM · #23
For focus, you just need one light source at infinity. The moon. A star. Headlights. A porchlight. Anything. Focus on that. Set to manual focus. Don't touch the lens. Recompose. I find that works far better than trying to manually focus to be very sharp. I agree with SS about the f/stop. I'm always working at the f/2.8 end of things unless I'm trying to do a truly long exposure.
01/17/2012 05:17:09 PM · #24
Oh OK thanks for the info on mirror lockup, SS...I guess the redhead's been trying to brainwash me! Damn Canon shooters! ;-)
01/17/2012 09:46:56 PM · #25
Large eyecup is useful for very dark focusing.
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